O, Holy Night
The last of the Christmas Eve crowd headed down the front steps of the church. Snow was beginning to fall. I hoped it would be the “decorative” kind—the kind that looks pretty, but that doesn’t get in the way of those who have to be out in it. A little cosmetic snow was always a pleasant addition to the Silent Night ambiance.
From the open doorway of the church, I could see the Christmas lights shining from across the street through the windows at the parsonage. My son Devin, who was home visiting, would be setting out snacks on the plates filled with treats and cookies we had prepared earlier. We would put on some soft music and pour a celebratory glass of wine as I started the great unwinding that comes when the last service is finished. Mike would be home from his services in an hour or so. His congregations were over the mountains, and I hoped the 60-plus mile drive over the pass didn’t give him any trouble. The snow was starting to look like it meant business.
The joys of being a two-pastor family! Living in a conference that is sparsely populated meant that for most of our married life thus far we had lived in separate towns. Mike’s two churches were only an hour or so away, but one of the primary forms of pastoral ministry requires physical presence. Mike had a little house in Superior, and I lived in the parsonage in Stevensville. We had originally planned to alternate days off in terms of who visited the other—but eventually it was Mike who did most of the driving. My congregation was a bit higher maintenance. It was during this season of our life together that I became a Christmas minimalist. There just never seemed to be enough time and energy to do the little extras that are such a delightful part of the holidays—baking, decorating, entertaining, attending parties. My mantra became: “All I want for Christmas is a clean house.” (Come to think of it, I still say that every year.)
Our lives were not totally devoid of tradition, however. The weeks before Christmas were so hectic, we would just put our heads down and go—and then suddenly, after the last Silent Night faded into the darkness, everything just stopped abruptly. All we wanted to do was come home to each other. It might be 11:00 or 12:00 o’clock before we managed it, but that never mattered. Whoever arrived home first would put together plates of goodies. What kind of plates they were on, and how decoratively they were arranged was also dependent on which spouse made it to the kitchen first. If any of our loved ones were home, they would join us as we decompressed, ate, had a celebratory glass of wine, and opened packages. This year, Devin was the only one home, Judy-dear had stayed in Missoula to attend her church’s service.
I was just re-checking the lights in the sanctuary, when Don, one of my helpers for the evening, came around the corner to tell me I had a phone call. Uh, oh. It was not looking good for getting into my comfy clothes and relaxing. As I walked toward my office, I was crossing fingers and toes that this would be a “little” emergency that wouldn’t require me to jump in my car and drive the 30 miles into one of the hospitals in Missoula.
I was surprised to recognize the voice of a former parishioner, named Dennis. He and his wife had moved a couple of years ago, and were now part of one of Mike’s congregations. It took a beat or two for my brain to catch up with my ears. Mike, my Mike, was in the Emergency Room at the small community hospital in Superior. During the service, Mike had begun acting strangely—repeating scriptures and carols he had already led. Eventually, one of the church folks, who was also an emergency responder, gently led him off the chancel area. The call ended as Dennis gave me the phone number of the emergency room.
After a quick phone call to the charge nurse, I finished locking up, and headed across the street to grab a coat and tell Devin what was going on. He volunteered to come with me. I don’t know what I would have done without him.
On a clear day, it took us about an hour to drive between my church and his church in Superior. Tonight, there was not much in the way of traffic, but the snow was now blowing toward the windshield like the Millennial Falcon wheezing into warp speed. I drove, because I needed to do something, to have some sense of control. Pastors see people in pretty scary circumstances, we therefore know more than is probably good for us. My mind raced through worst possible scenarios. The nurse had tried to be reassuring on the phone, saying he was disoriented and confused. It didn’t appear to be a stroke, but they were going to run some tests.
We drove mostly in silence, the radio, turned down low, was tuned to Christmas music. By the time we drove through Missoula, the traffic lights had already flipped to flashing mode. The streets were eerily empty. The pass was icy and slow going. I slowed down only enough to keep from slipping on the curves.
When we got to the ER, Mike was sitting up in bed, surrounded by several of his flock. He grinned when he saw me, trying for what I can only think of as insouciance. (It didn’t work.) His parishioners told me the story from their perspective, and Mike couldn’t really remember any of it. As we waited for the doctor, those who had been at the service took turns coming in to check on him.
After what I am sure felt much longer than it actually was, the doctor came in to tell us that he was still not quite sure what had happened. The only way to absolutely rule out a stroke was to take an MRI. That would mean driving him to a larger hospital in Missoula.
This time, Devin took the wheel, and I sat in the back seat with Mike. As we turned onto the freeway, he asked:
“Where is my wallet?”
“I have it right here.”
A moment later:
“Where is my truck? Do you have the keys?”
“We left it at the church, we will come back for it later.”
“Have you seen my wallet? Do you know where my wallet is?”
“Yes, honey, I’ve got it right here.”
“Okay. Where are my truck keys?”
Like a record with an invisible scratch, we bounced back again and again to a loop of anxiety and uncertainty. My heart flattened in panic. I tried to reply to each query as if hearing it for the first time. What if the Michael I knew was not coming back?
Superior Community Hospital had called the ER in Missoula to expect us. It didn’t take them long to get him in a room and pop him in bed. And then we waited. It was, after all Christmas Eve—scratch that, “Christmas Day.” We were in for a long wait.
There aren’t very many people I would feel comfortable calling at 12:30 a.m. on Christmas morning, my dear friend Judy is one of them. She was 10 minutes away from the hospital—but I think she made it there is five. The four of us, Judy, Devin, Me, and a still-groggy Mike sat in semi-darkness and waited together. Devin and Judy returned to her place to put together some snacks and coffee—if we were to be up all night, we might as well be well-nourished.
At some point in those timeless hours, we became aware of the sound of weeping coming from the room next door. Our pastor reflexes twitched on. Some family, one whose name and circumstances we would never know, had lost a loved one. There was no comfort we could give. We held each other’s hand and held them in prayer together. For that family, and how many others, would every future Christmas now be etched by excruciating loss.
When Judy and Devin returned we sipped our hot coffee and nibbled on snacks as we kept vigil together. Eventually, I talked them into going to Judy’s to try to grab at least a couple of hours of sleep. Daylight brought twanging muscles from trying to doze in the chair for me and a battery of tests for Mike. By mid-day, the doctors had ruled out stroke, Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA), and most of the terrifying potentialities that had been running as a continuous loop in my head. Mike’s symptoms gradually faded. The diagnosis, via process of elimination, was Transient Global Amnesia. It is a rather mysterious condition, no one is sure what causes it. But the hospitalist believed Mike would make a full recovery, and he would likely never be troubled by another episode.
When we left the hospital in the early afternoon, the snow had stopped, and the sun struck sparks of light in the fresh snow. We headed home and after tucking Mike into bed, I climbed in to join him. The dogs, wondering where we had been, but always ready for a nap, joined us.
I have absolutely no memory of the rest of that day. It wasn’t the Christmas we had prepared for, but then again, neither was that first one.